Have you suddenly been awaked in the middle of the night by your cell phone blaring an unfamiliar, frantic screech of an alarm while vibrating and displaying an emergency text message about a missing child? Or maybe you've received an unexpected phone warning about dangerous weather, such as a flash flooding, the likes of which you've never seen before. If you have, and you have no idea of the source of this apparently new feature that you didn't remember downloading, you are not alone.
The system is called the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. It's the result of collaboration between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and private cellular providers through the trade organization CTIA -- The Wireless Association (originally the Cellular Telephone Industry Association) to push potentially lifesaving information to our cell phones.
It is overseen by the FCC and FEMA as a companion to the Emergency Alert System (EAS) (formerly the Emergency Broadcast System). Both systems fall under FEMA's Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS).
The service actually isn't new. It was previously referred to as the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) or the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN). Participating cellular carriers were required to roll WEA out by April 7, 2012, and the National Weather Service joined in June 2012.
As a concept, it's been around even longer. The Warning, Alert and Response Network (WARN) Act of 2006 mandated creation of the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee by the FCC to make recommendations regarding what was necessary to send emergency alerts through mobile carriers, which laid the groundwork for the new alert system. The act also gave wireless providers the option to opt out with the provision that they inform their customers.
The alerts come from authorized government authorities, including the U.S. president, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), the National Weather Service and other federal agencies, as well as state, local, territorial and tribal public safety officials. They are sent to a central system, IPAWS, which was created in compliance with Executive Order 13407, Public Alert and Warning System, issued on June 26, 2006. FEMA provides training and tools to help designated local officials create and send alerts.
The new system represents an effort to get important emergency warnings out to as many people as possible, not just those watching TV or listening to the radio, now that people in the U.S. have more than 300 million mobile devices and over 90 percent of adults carry cell phones [sources: Hu, CTIA, Pew Research Center].